Don’t ever pour a few drinks into me and get me fired up about modern car design, because it’s simply unfair… for me. There are only so many synonyms for the word “suppository,” and trust me, I’ve used them all. That’s why I appreciate it when automakers take a chance in the sheetmetal department. When Nissan decided to denude the Southwest of peyote and come up with the Murano CrossCabriolet and the Juke, frankly, I applauded that someone pushed those cars past the beancounters and the sour-looking management dudes with ill-fitting toupees (there’s probably some overlap there) to hit a retailer near you. I’ve never had an occasion to wear a disguise and try both of them out, but I’ll admit that in my weaker moments the sheer absurdity of the Juke makes me swoon.
Look, anyone could pen an ugly car. I’m convinced that some of the all-time worst styling offenders were simply the product of the management handing the drafting pen to a doe-eyed young designer, with a cranium swollen with wondrous ideas and all high on endorphins for their chance to design a car that people will actually drive in the real world, and then clubbing said designer over the head and tracing around a piece of toast. This technique led to several Chysler products.
The 2012 Hyundai Veloster is not absurd. Or, at least not in the same class of bonkers as either of those Nissans, but that’s not to say it isn’t as boldly different in other respects. First of all, there’s the asymmetry. Two doors on one side, and one on the other. Obsessive-compulsives may want to avert their eyes, or at least step back and forth through a doorway 35 times before looking closely at this car. In the same vein, grammarians should just ignore the word “coupe” entirely. It’s not worth an aneurism to protest; the world’s moved on, “hella” is rapidly approaching acceptance into the OED, and I have an owl so your argument is invalid.
It only takes a glance to realize the Veloster is different, but how different? Read on to find out.
Work your incredulous eyes elsewhere, and thankfully bilateral symmetry returns in front and rear head-on views. The Veloster’s expressive face wears the same distinctive Fluidic Design language as other new Hyundais, but with an anime twist. There are some mecha elements that are hard to pin down running riot in the look here, with those grille-flanking gills resembling air intakes of the space-faring, transforming, shooting-aliens-with-blaster-cannons variety. It’s like the tender for some Interplanetary Marines’ heavy space-frigate. If you’ve never wondered which characters on Galactica were humans or Toasters, just pretend my last sentence read “it looks vaguely European.”
Following another Veloster through the twisting roads of southern Washington State, “vaguely European” became a mantra of sorts as I annoyed my passenger by trying to figure out what flavor of well-renowned Continental marques the sculpted hindquarters reminded me of. “Alfa!” I’d shout suddenly as we missed an apex and headed towards the surprisingly steep drop-offs at the edge of the pavement. “Lancia!” I barked, “or perhaps Opel!” All this elicited first startled jumps, then shrugs, and eventually glares. Don’t play this game. The rear is chimerical, but ultimately pleasingly unique. It’s a Hyundai that’s not aping anything else.
Thankfully, chassis composure (more on that in a minute) triumphed over mental composure and I never bent any of the Veloster’s sheetmetal more so than it already is. Seriously, the metal creasing machine called and it wants a raise. Those rear fenders have edges that could carve a turkey, and they jut out like a pair of Polynesian outriggers. Frankly, I love it; the rear fascia is like an M.C. Escher design, with scalloped elements paired with raised ones, so there’s always an interesting detail to catch your eye.
Or not: despite Hyundai execs making a big deal of the piano black panel in the lower bumper just above the central dual exhaust tips, I hardly noticed it. It looks nice, sure, when it was finally pointed out to me, but it didn’t catch my eye. That rear panel is certainly the exception, as the Veloster drew sly side-glances in too-cool-for-school Portland, and near-universal praise from anyone queried. And if “styling” isn’t very high up on your shopping list, I’m sure another automaker is happy to make you a nice slice of toast.
Let’s move inside, shall we? Pick a door, any of the three. If you’ve chosen either of the fronts, you’ll find that the cockpit is really a very pleasant place to be. Controls fall right to hand, adjustments are straightforward, and the seats are comfortable if not memorably so. Unlike a lot of Asian cars, I don’t recall half of my thighs hanging off the front of the seat. While that usually has the effect of making me feel 7’ tall like in so many of my junior high fantasies, it’s not very comfortable. Not a problem here. Let’s move on to an actual problem—for a car with this personality, you want to hang your arm out the window. But you can’t, because the BELTLINE IS TOO DAMN HIGH. Look, aside from the throwaway joke, it was honestly disappointing.
Here’s the interesting part, though: generally, a high beltline means you’re going to get sightlines that make a pillbox look panoramic. The Veloster, with that coupe-like roofline and split rear hatch, must be something only Mr. Magoo could appreciate, right? Nope. While it wasn’t exactly a bubble canopy a la the F-16, big side view mirrors and well-place rear quarter windows meant changing lanes wasn’t an exercise in finding religion. And while I found Hyundai’s claim that with the blacked-out A-pillars the front resembled the visor of a motorcycle helmet a bit of a stretch, both driver and passenger got a great view forward, upward, and to the sides. Perfect for watching long stretches of the American landscape scroll by like so much projected movie scenery.
From the rear seat, you won’t see much of anything except a projection of the crick in your neck you’re going to get from the low roofline. It’s fine for short jaunts or children, but average-size adults will appreciate the independently-opening rear door as a fine way to uncoil themselves from their claustrophobic confines.
I spent most of my time in Oregon in a manual-equipped Veloster, and while Hyundai only expects a 30% take rate on the manuals, I think it could be competently operated by a mannequin. Breathe on the gearshift at the right angle and it’ll slot effortlessly into the gear your reptilian brain was instinctively aiming for. Sixth is on a bit of a dogleg, so it take a slightly more circular throw to get it to slot home, but for the interesting combination of accuracy and ease of use, this transmission stands out. Is it sporty? The gearing isn’t bad for the purpose at hand, but I’d be hard-pressed to call my time spent rowing the box forward and back “sporty.” But with a light clutch engagement and light shifter action, something else will give many hours before your right hand and left leg wear out. Probably your bladder.
A mild criticism is in order here. Along with the ease of use comes a bit of a disconnect, in terms of the feel of the switchgear. Not the steering—the variable, electrically-assisted rack was perfectly weighted at speeds, and I quite enjoyed it. As for the rest, the best description I could come up with was that it was a little like playing a video game using peripheral pedals and a shifter. It almost felt like a simulation of using the switchgear. It wasn’t unpleasant, just disconcerting.
I’ll be perfectly blunt: unless you’re physically incapable of operating a manual transmission, save the few hundred dollars and skip the EcoShift DCT—the manual is so low-effort to operate you’ll hardly notice the difference, and unless your leg operates as an on-off switch your clutch engagement will be less jerky at low speeds than the DCT. The traditional automatic in the Elantra is much more competent and at least as sporty-feeling, which is to say not a ton. And the tiny paddles on the steering wheel, while well positioned, might have been rejects from the Acme Poorly Injection-Molded Budget Plastics Corporation, with obnoxious ridges and flashing that were frankly uncomfortable to use. Compared to the very high level of fit, finish, and materials quality of the rest of the car, it was jarring to lay a finger on them. I left the DCT in “drive” for the rest of my short jaunt and limped the shuddering car home.
Every Veloster comes with a 7″ touchscreen paired to a pretty feature-packed audio system, that sounded nice and, in terms of audio levels and balance, was easy to tweak. You also get Pandora connectivity (if you pair an iPhone via Bluetooth), Gracenote voice recognition, video playback capability, and a pair of green driving games/aids. Pony up a bit more and you’ll get more speakers and a fairly infuriating navigation system. Well, honestly I consider most navigation systems to be rather infuriating (I’ll take a Thomas Guide, thanks!), but the balky and slightly unintuitive nav on the Veloster made us want to explore meditation and breathing techniques. Likewise the ideosyncracies of the aux-in iPod controls, which always started playing the first song alphabetically in the playlist (that’s apparently how it’s supposed to work, as maddening as it was the 12th time it happened). At this price point, I don’t expect perfection, but as a person who prefers to rock out to MP3s on the road this was frustrating. Hopefully a software update makes things a little more copacetic here, but I think most users will shrug slightly and deal, considering that the infotainment system is still feature-rich and relatively inexpensive.
So the sound system pumps up the volume, but from under the hood, nearly nary a noise. My driving partner and I both like to shift by ear, and the remarkably quiet Veloster frustrated our efforts by being too Lexus-ish. Therefore, we winked, nodded, and then proceeded to befuddle our adorably concerned Hyundai friends by posting up on a gravel patch, popping the hood, and fiddling with the bits in the compartment that covered up the 1.6-liter, direct-injection, dual continually variable valve timing, electronically-throttled … hold on, my fingers need a breather … engine. It’s full of technology and also covered with a large piece of injection-molded plastic that prevented either of us from seeing if, in actuality, the cam cover looked vaguely like an Offy, as it sort of did from the side. A shrug and a tug, and we were holding the cover in our hands. It just pops off to reveal the sound insulation on its underside. Sure, the direct-injection hardware makes some strange noises and it’s not surprising that Hyundai wanted to mellow out the harsh, but for added PAH! and a noticeable increase in engine volume, this is a simple and eminently reversible change.
Sound aside, the motor does its job very well, like the inverse of one of Kafka’s nameless bureaucrats. It provides enough juice for pretty much every legal velocity we cared to explore and quite a few that probably weren’t. The Veloster is light—just a hair over 2,500 lbs.—and 138 horsepower is an adequate figure. It would be more adequate if the Veloster’s chassis wasn’t so damn good.
Huh? Lemme explain: this chassis, this composed, thoroughly competent and confident chassis, is begging for more power like a junkie craves junk. Beautifully neutral for a front-driver, and with a confidence-inspiring sense of heft and grip, if you closed your eyes (our cut-rate lawyers strongly advise you not to actually do this) you might think you were driving a European car. Ride quality and composure over a variety of road surfaces was excellent – really, approaching the feel of a much more expensive vehicle. Anyone who’s spent time in a German-market Opel or VW will know what I mean about the sense of solidity or weight. So while the Veloster is in no way underpowered, it’s clear that we weren’t approaching the limits of what the chassis was capable of.
To be clear, Hyundai brass were quite coy about the prospect of more power trickling down to this car. Could it happen? Maybe. If you want to bribe a Hyundai engineer and tell me what you find out, go for it, but on a writer’s salary my only contribution to the bribe kitty would be $0.38 in grimy change and this stale bagel I’ve been softening in stale coffee.
As I’m gumming this final morsel of toroidal sustenance, I’ll wrap up with what I’d pitch the Veloster as. It’s not really a sport coupe, either dynamically or grammatically. Nor is it an economy car, although the 40 MPG freeway claim (not independently verified) is promising. It does eat up miles and windy roads at high speeds rather effortlessly, and with the huge sunroof open and the windows down, it was a pleasant way to cover a good deal of both banks of the mighty Columbia River for several hours.
This is, in fact, a budget grand touring car.
Well-built and attractively priced, I think it’s a good choice for a lot of folks I know, actually. There’s my buddy who does an L.A.-to-San Francisco run about once a week in a Mazda3—he’d appreciate this car, perhaps more than his own. There’s my road-tripping friend winding around North America on a well-deserved several months off work to celebrate his 30th birthday—this would be the perfect car for his offbeat sensibilities. As for my friends who run trackdays, this probably isn’t the car for them. Will it be the car for your hip urban lifestyle? The salvation for the teeming multitudes yearning to roadtrip freely? Or is it a competent car begging for more power? I don’t have any answers, I just call ’em like I see ’em. And this coffee’s not getting any fresher.
Baring it all: Hyundai sprung for this Hoon to fly to Portland to drive the Veloster, plying him with beverages, food, and concerts and then attempting to kill him by making him watch a University of Oregon football game in 90+ degree heat. Consider the perks to have cancelled each other out then.